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How many recover from alcohol and drug abuse annually?

Dear Alice,

Do you know how many people recover from alcohol and drug abuse annually? I would really like to know.

Thanks,
Stat-man

Dear Stat-man, 

You're in good company wondering how many people recover from alcohol and drug abuse annually. Researchers have (and continue to) dedicate time and effort to recovery research. The recovery process looks different for many people, so rates of recovery can be difficult to measure, which makes your question a challenging one to answer. Recovery can take years or a lifetime and is a process of change rather than having a specific endpoint. That being said, there is some knowledge about the outlook of recovery—read on for more details. 

A good place to start with this answer is with some definitions and distinctions. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) defines a substance use disorder as "the recurrent use of alcohol or drugs [which] causes clinically significant impairment, including health problems, disability, and failure to meet major responsibilities at work, school, or home." Substance use disorders are further broken down based on the drug used, such as alcohol, tobacco, stimulants, or opioids, just to name a few. Rather than being defined as abuse or dependence, the disorder can be categorized as mild, moderate, or severe, which is determined based on the diagnostic criteria that a person meets. Substance use disorder may be more common than you think; as of 2021 there are about 46 million people living with substance use disorder—that's around 16 percent of the United States (US) population. 

SAMSHA also releases an annual National Survey on Drug Use and Health that provides more statistics and information about drug use and recovery. According to the survey, of those who had previous substance use concerns, about 70 percent (approximately 20 million people) refer to themselves as recovering or in recovery. In the same year, about 94 percent of those with a substance use disorder didn't receive treatment and almost all of those who didn't receive treatment didn't think they needed it. 

There are many factors that may affect whether a person decides to seek treatment or start the recovery process. Often, one of the major factors is a person's motivation to seek and follow through with treatment. Some individuals treat themselves, stopping substance use because of a family crisis or health problems that they tie directly to their substance use. Some may be required to participate in treatment by a court order or their employer. Others find professional help by themselves or based on the suggestions from loved ones. They may reach out for support from psychotherapists, treatment centers, support groups, or a combination of these and other options. 

Sociocultural factors such as race, education level, or religion (among others) may also influence substance use, abuse, and the desire to seek treatment, which subsequently influences recovery rates. It's also important to note that someone may start treatment, but not finish. Of those who enter treatment, slightly less than 42 percent complete treatment. It can also be good to keep in mind that relapse—when people use the substance again after going through a recovery process—is common. Of those in recovery, about 40 to 60 percent may experience relapse at some point in the process. This doesn't mean that person’s no longer in recovery nor does it mean previous treatment failed; rather, it may be a sign that it’s time to modify or resume treatment as a part of that person’s recovery plan. Learning how to develop a sense of resilience may help those in recovery navigate these changes. 

Since substance use and recovery is so deeply impacted by a variety of factors, even with strong motivation, the actual psychological and physical substance dependence itself can still impact how someone navigates treatment and recovery. Many substance abuse treatments come with a lens of harm reduction to provide people with the tools and information they need for sustaining change. SAMSHA suggests that the four dimensions necessary to support long-lasting recovery includes: 

  • Health. This includes managing symptoms and being informed about choices that impact your health and well-being. 
  • Home. Physical safety and having housing stability. 
  • Purpose. The meaningfulness in our daily activities including work, school, hobbies, or other interests. 
  • Community. Your networks of social support. This might be a significant other, family, friends, and anyone that is important to you. 

List adapted from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Servies Administration

Though this response may generate more questions that go beyond the statistics. Here's to hoping that it's still helpful in providing clarity about what recovery from substance abuse looks like and in what ways people seek and receive treatment. If you or someone you know is struggling with substance use, you might consider finding treatment nearest to you, if you’re located in the United States (US). It may also be beneficial to meet with a medical professional or a mental health professional to discuss any substance use concerns. If you're a current college or university student in the US, your school may also have resources specific to substance use as part of federal mandates. 

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Last updated Sep 15, 2023
Originally published Jan 09, 1996